While it is important to keep in mind that survival of the Kim Regime is the vital national interest that guides everything that North Korea does, there are also some subordinate interests and objectives at play and they seem somewhat contradictory (which is what gives the appearance that the regime is irrational to those of us in the West).
The nuclear program is deemed key to the regime’s survival on multiple levels ranging from security (deterrence from a pre-emptive attack) to economic (nuclear and missile proliferation bring hard currency) to diplomatic (blackmail diplomacy to gain political and economic concessions) to political (internal domestic politics supporting both Juche ideology and Military First Politics).
Juche is best encapsulated with the quote “man rules all things, man decides all things.” Juche is more broadly based on the following precepts: In ideology, Juche (autonomy); in politics, self-reliance; in economics, independence; and in National Security, self-defense.
Underlying all of the above is a desire to be recognized as a player on the world stage – a goal that I think must be in the DNA of the Kim family, even though the regime has lost all credibility as a responsible member of the international community. This goal has evolved into being recognized as a nuclear power because such a status would solidify its internal legitimacy and enhance its diplomatic and negotiating position from one of weakness (surrounded at the negotiating table by the five powers) to one of strength and even as an equal to other nations that possess nuclear weapons.
Looking at the current crisis on the Korean Peninsula with a view of North Korea’s interests, goals, and aspirations, the task now is to determine what exactly the Kim Family Regime hopes to achieve with its recent actions.
The end game may be as I have mentioned before: they will test a missile timed to “bring an end to the ROK/U.S. provocative exercises” so that Pyongyang can establish a propaganda narrative that demonstrates that the ROK/U.S. Alliance so fears North Korea’s nuclear-capable military power that it deploys its most advanced weapons in an attempt to counter the north. Following that, the Kim Family Regime will seek to demonstrate that, in the end, the north held firm in the face of such strength and in fact it was the recognition of its power that caused the Alliance to back down and end its exercises. This obviously has important domestic political considerations for North Korea.
A “kinetic provocation” is also possible (e.g., a military confrontation). While there is fear of miscalculation, I think a decisive ROK response at the time and place of the provocation, rather than a later strategic response, will prevent escalation. This is because a strategic response against deeper targets will be interpreted as a threat to the North Korean regime, which would lead to very dangerous escalation.. Recall the hundreds of incidents on the Korean DMZ (Demilitarized Zone) that have not resulted in escalation, as well as the naval battles in the Northwest Islands area in which the ROK Navy decisively sunk north Korean ships without leading to escalation. After all, the North Korean military cannot stand toe to toe with the ROK military in a conventional fight, let alone a conventional or nuclear fight with the ROK/US Alliance.
In addition, and perhaps more importantly, is the objective to return to negotiations and be recognized as a nuclear power. The current crisis has engendered so much press coverage and is in many ways de-sensitizing people to the North’s nuclear capability. In other words, people are at least sub-consciously referring to the north as a nuclear power. Of course, this is key for future negotiations even though it seems absurd to those outside North Korea, especially as the North Korean regime will call for arms limitations and reduction talks and not denuclearization.
While the above is pure speculation on my part, I think it can be justified on a historical basis. I do think that the late Hwang Jang-Yop’s— the highest level defector from North Korea—explanation of the importance of the nuclear program for Pyongyang and why the north has not initiated a full-scale war or invasion support this analysis. No one outside the regime knows more about its inner workings than he did and, even though Hwang defected in 1997 and did not have an opportunity to gain any real insights into Kim Jong-un as a leader, I think the evidence so far shows that Kim Jong-un is following the Kim Family Regime playbook and has adopted all the same positions – albeit with some tactical variations, e.g., the trial of “image First Politics.”
There is one thing to keep in mind, however. The ROK/U.S. Alliance has not been played for a fool. The actions of the Alliance have in fact sent a powerful message to the regime. One of the key conditions for regime survival and attainment of the North’s strategic objective of unification of the Peninsula under its control is to split the ROK/U.S. Alliance. One of the important things the ROK/U.S. Alliance has done is to attack this part of the regime’s strategy by demonstrating that the Alliance is strong, has resolve, and that there is no daylight between the ROK and U.S. (except for the differences over the ROK nuclear program and impertinent remarks of some spokesmen who said that the U.S. deployments were to restrain the ROK – these are patently unhelpful remarks when the Alliance should be trying to attack the north’s strategy). However, the shows of force do influence the Kim Regime’s decision making in the most important way – the north knows that if it launches a large-scale conventional or nuclear attack the U.S. will support the defense of the ROK with overwhelming firepower.
Paradoxically, understanding this should be helpful to ROK/U.S. diplomats when both sides return to the negotiating table. (And I think we should because “jaw-jaw is better than war-war.”) However, when Seoul and Washington negotiate these days, they can do so from their own position of Alliance strength because despite the north having a nuclear capability, the Alliance has shown that it can and will counter it and has made clear that the north cannot be successful in a conventional or nuclear war.
I think both sides should talk, but the U.S. should also fully enforce all sanctions and in fact have a comprehensive policy and strategy to deal with North Korea on a global basis – e.g., attack all its illicit activities via international and domestic law enforcement mechanisms that interdict each and every illicit activity the north is conducting. Additionally, a comprehensive PSYOP program is necessary to influence the North Korean people and the second tier leadership. Most importantly, the U.S. should be working with the ROK to support the long term strategic end state of unification of the Korean Peninsula.
To paraphrase President John F. Kennedy, we do not have to negotiate out of fear but we do not have to fear to negotiate. We have an opportunity in the future to achieve our Alliance objectives on our terms and to continue to manage these recurring crises until someone inside North Korea decides to make a change – either a change to become a responsible member of the international community or to change the regime altogether.
David S. Maxwell is the Associate Director of the Center for Security Studies and the Security Studies Program, Georgetown University.